Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 2019 ***

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…in which JJ Abrams performs a sky-walk of shame, walking back all kinds of ideas that just didn’t work for the Star Wars universe. Abrams, of course, seemed to herald a new kind of film-making when he took to the big screen after the success of Lost. Where once George Lucas had struggled to create a consistent universe in his reviled prequel trilogy, Abrams was seen as the cure for the disease, a fan-boy who knew exactly what fans wanted and would give it to them. The Force Awakens was heralded as the beginning of a golden era for Star Wars, new characters, new worlds, a new on-message PC mind-set, and a blockbuster franchise to last a lifetime.

Fast forward to 2019, and fans can’t wait for the Abrams Star Wars era to end. Sure, there are some satisfied customers, but they’re few and far between; complaint is the main content of any Star Wars conversation. And fatigue is part of the issue; The Rise of Skywalker fights for advertising space alongside a glut of licenced products including the Fallen Order video game, the Galaxy’s Edge theme park, and a new TV show (The Mandalorian) which has ignited genuine interest. With characters like Finn and Rey failing to engage audiences, legions of fans are looking elsewhere rather than the flagship trilogy.

The third of the four trilogies originally mooted circa 1978, The Rise of Skywalker has continuity issues; Abrams has killed off too many of the key characters too early, and his faith in the new recruits seems misplaced. Does anyone care if Rey (Daisy Ridley) goes to the dark or light side of the force? Does Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his redemption hold much water after he killed his father in The Force Awakens? Will Poe (Oscar Isaac) ever find, erm, whatever he’s looking for? And as for Finn (John Boyega), who knows? He’s side-lined as effectively as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), discarded toys tossed asunder due to a lack of traction in key markets. Meanwhile Han and Luke are gone, but not forgotten, reduced to motivational-trainer ghosts shouting encouragement from the side-lines like soccer-moms, while poor Carrie Fisher has her grave comprehensively robbed as deleted scenes are artlessly repurposed to create the illusion that she’s still alive.

The Empire Strikes Back’s climactic plot twist has proved a mill-stone around the neck of Star Wars in terms of creating soap-opera rather than space-opera expectations; the revelation that Rey is, spoiler alert, the grand-daughter of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) doesn’t resonate at all, other than to throw up the series complete lack of interest in this villainous character as anything other than a get out clause. When did Palpatine have time to have kids, or even grand-kids? Abrams, as with Lost, is far better at asking questions than providing answers; when the solutions finally appear, the audience has lost interest.

Fan-service is a dirty word, and yet it’s the one thing, other than casting and packaging, which Abrams does so well; the call-backs to personnel, themes and scenes all create some genuine connection to a beloved universe, and for some, that will be enough. But in terms of plot and character, the third Star Wars trilogy has been a misbegotten, stuttering disaster. There’s no more films scheduled beyond this, and rightly so; the inverted pyramid of expectations that snuffed out George Lucas’s talent seems to have claimed further victims in the undoubted abilities of Rian Johnson and JJ Abrams. Until some new talent emerges, it’s probably best to keep the fourth and final trilogy on the shelf for now.

The Dead Don’t Die 2019 ***

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‘This is going to end badly’ says cop Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) repeatedly in Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film, and he’s right, although if you’re looking for thrills or comedy, it doesn’t start well either. Jarmusch has a celebrated off-beat style; The Dead Don’t Die shoe-horns the director’s unique sensibilities into a conventional zombie film. And it is conventional; minor characters in the small town of Centreville wonder if the attacks that plague them could be caused by fracking or wild animals, while the protagonists debate the best way of killing zombies. Knowing dialogue references Driver’s Star Wars involvement, while late exchanges see Driver and Bill Murray discussing how many of the script pages Jarmusch has allowed them to see. Such fourth-wall breaks will alienate many, but they add layers to what seems a straightforward film; Jarmusch seems content to riff on George A Romero and his use of zombies to offer a critique on capitalism and that’s largely what The Dead Don’t Die offers. It’s a whimsical, evasive work from a great director, designed to be problematic and not for the horror comedy crowd, despite some gore and some smart moments. As a side note, Tilda Swinton’s appearance as a quirky Scottish mortician is regrettable; while she herself is Scottish, leaning into racist stereotypes seems to be part of her on-going campaign to alienate herself from her homeland. It’s only one small element in an anything goes movie, but the accent and the appearance are about as sensitive as blackface if you’re Scottish.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote 2018 ****

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99 cents is the humble rental price for Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film so long awaited that other films have been made about how long it was taking; Lost In La Mancha details an earlier flurry of activity that failed to get Cervantes famous story onto the big screen. It has not been lost on Gilliam that spending thirty years attempting to tell the story of a man who famously titled at windmills has a poignancy all of its own, so finally watching The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a strange experience; it’s initially hard to separate the film’s making from the story. The vibe is very 1989 in terms of a magic–realist narrative; An advertising executive Tony Grisoni (Adam Driver) slips back in time and finds himself in the company of the legend Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce). Rewrites have allowed Gilliam to embrace the meta elements here; while shooting a commercial featuring the character of Don Quixote, Grisoni unearths his own student film on the same subject, and sets out to visit the locations, only to find the actor he cast is now living as the character. The production difficulties, which were not surprisingly many and diverse, have been detailed elsewhere; what’s on screen may not have the full sweep and scope of what the director imagined, but it looks pretty good, and evokes exactly the right spirit for a modern Cervantes adaptation. What Gilliam has not compromised is that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a text that the audience can get lost in, alongside the main character, over a 132 minute running time, and it’s almost certain that the same overwhelming effect would be what was intended when production started in 1989. Driver does well with a tricky role, Pryce is imperious as Quixote, and the episodic narrative blends scenes from the original text with some nice commentary. Trickling out unannounced on home streaming services may not be what Gilliam dreamed of, but fans of Gilliam, Monty Python and Cervantes will want to buy this one for a dollar or more; it’s a magical mystery tour mixing past and present, fact and fiction, film and literature, and the pleasurable experience of watching it snatches a secret success from the jaws of well-publicised failure.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07QNM5C4F?camp=1789&creativeASIN=B07QNM5C4F&ie=UTF8&linkCode=xm2&tag=justwatch09-20

Blackkklansman 2018 ****

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Spike Lee’s best film in a couple of decades is a true-life story that’s both weird and wonderful; the story of a black policemen who infiltrates the white enclave of the Klu Klux Klan, Lee’s film would be unbelievable if it didn’t happen to be based on a factual account by ex-cop Ron Stallworth. Played by John David Washington, Stallworth is tired of getting the wrong end of the stick at Colorado Springs Police Department and calls up the KKK membership drive. Stallworth needs a white face to complete his ruse, and Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is prepared to be his other half. Once the men get close to the Grand Duke (Topher Grace), they discover a bomb plot that makes their cover story all the more risky. While Blackkklansman exaggerates Stallworth’s story for dramatic effect, Lee’s film is a gripping ride, with Washington and Driver both engaging, and the audience’s lack of knowledge about how the story concludes creating considerable tension. A final coda using sobering newsreel footage from Charlottesville hammers the message home, and Blackkklansman takes no prisoners in demonstrating how right-wing ideology can create moral danger.

Paterson 2016 ****

paterson4As gentle as the most soothing nature documentary, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a minority interest film that will repel thrill-seekers, but slowly, carefully works up to some genuine magic for discerning audience. Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver living in Paterson NJ; this co-incidence is the first in a series of dualities which infuse his everyday life. Glimpses of twins, the dreams of his partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) , even the name of his favourite poet William Carlos Williams, everything seems to come in twos. Jarmusch earnestly catalogues the daily routines as Paterson eats breakfast, drives his bus, walks his dog, visits his pub, and shares his thoughts via poetry to Laura. She’s encouraging him to copy his poems and show them around, but Paterson’s reluctance to share his writing threatens to create a singularity that will unbalance his life. Very little happens of note in Paterson, but after the first hour, there’s much of moment; Jarmusch’s film deals with the role of art and the artist is an acutely sensitive way, and Driver is a perfect centre as the gentle soul who struggles to reconcile his genuine artistry with his fragile relationship to his tiny but beautifully detailed world.